ARE the local election results a troubling indication that SNP support on the ground is weaker than previously thought? Possibly, but not necessarily. The standard health warning that “local elections are different” is not a feeble excuse – on the only occasion that Scottish local elections were conducted under the Single Transferable Vote system on the same day as a Holyrood election, the SNP vote was a full five percentage points below the figure recorded on the Holyrood constituency vote. That’s not to say we can crudely slap on another extra five per cent to the SNP’s vote share and regard that as the party’s true level of support, but it is an illustration of the degree of uncertainty caused by differences in local and national voting trends. Indeed, it may even understate the uncertainty, because when local elections are not held on the same day as a parliamentary election, the turnout is inevitably lower, leading to the potential for greater divergence.

But do the results at least suggest that general SNP support is now, as repeatedly asserted by Professor John Curtice, lower than in the 2015 General Election and 2016 Holyrood election? That’s much more plausible, because a few recent opinion polls have been telling a similar story. Nevertheless, there is no absolute proof. Aside from the usual factors that make local elections so different, it’s fair to say that we have never, ever had an election campaign quite like this one. The Tories whipped their core support into a frenzy with the call to vote against a second independence referendum, while the SNP blandly refused to play the same game and insisted that these were local elections solely about local issues.

That was a morally worthy approach, but from a hard-headed tactical point of view it’s doubtful whether constantly changing the subject from the constitution to dustbin collection was the most effective way of motivating supporters of independence to head to the polls. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that differential turnout can partly explain the SNP’s relatively disappointing showing, and it’s also not unreasonable to suggest that the same pattern need not be repeated in June – if the SNP take on board the lessons of this campaign.

Loading article content

Even on the basis of the results in front of us, it should be noted that the Conservatives have met expectations but not really exceeded them. They are essentially back to the level of support they last enjoyed in the 1980s and early 1990s when the legitimacy of their rule in Scotland was already seriously being called into question. Former Tory heartlands of decades past have not decisively returned to the fold. A strong tradition of independent councillors in Moray can perhaps explain the Tories’ failure to overtake the SNP on that particular council, but there is no equivalent alibi in Perth and Kinross, where the Tories only barely became the largest party, or in Michael Forsyth’s former fiefdom of Stirling, where the SNP and Tories are now tied. The SNP remain highly competitive in huge swathes of what would be “Tory Scotland” if Ruth Davidson had genuinely taken her party back to its past glories. With a small incumbency bonus, and hopefully with a more motivated core support than we saw this week, the likes of Pete Wishart, Angus Robertson and Steven Paterson still have every chance of holding their Westminster seats next month.

The most fascinating aspect of the local elections may not be the way they foreshadowed the General Election result, but how they might help to directly shape that result. In a number of areas, rival unionist parties were jockeying for position in the hope of providing voters with clear evidence of the best tactical option for defeating the SNP in various Westminster constituencies. The LibDems succeeded in that endeavour in Edinburgh West, but in East Dunbartonshire the deadlock between the Tories and LibDems has not been broken. Budding Unionist tactical voters in that part of the world may have to just take a leap of faith as to which party is the better bet – and if they don’t mostly guess in the same way, the outcome might be a split Unionist vote and a hold for the SNP’s John Nicolson.

But an even more important direct impact of the local elections could be on the mood of pro-independence and anti-Tory voters. Remember that the Tories’ relative success over the last year has been directly caused by a backlash against the SNP’s landslide victory in 2015. The boot may be on the other foot from now on. The Scottish Tories have not won these elections, but much of the media is doing its level best to convince us that they have. The fear and anger that will engender in many quarters could prove to be a valuable tool for the SNP over the coming weeks – if they choose to harness it.